I’m not here to defend the Assassin’s Creed franchise; that’d be silly. Assassin’s Creed has sold millions of copies and has won numerous awards. And rightfully so. But for whatever reason, the original title, staring Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad and taking place during The Crusades, seems to be overshadowed by its sequel. Personally, I have no idea why.
Assassin’s Creed II is regarded as the best in the series, something I honestly have problems coming to terms with. To be blunt, Ezio is a twat. I’ve never understood why characters in the game rotate back and forth between English and Italian, the ending is completely absurd, and the game feels like its narrative design was ripped straight from Grand Theft Auto.
To further elaborate on that last point, the original game was a sandbox in the truest form: You got your mission and were told to complete it. No cutscene as you reach a checkpoint to load the next part of the mission, no linear path hidden in the overworld. Just “you need to kill this dude, go research why, have fun, peace out.”
It’s this aspect of the gameplay that is often criticized: It’s not much fun sitting on a bench and listening to people talk. It’s also not much fun repeating the same basic recon missions over and over. Okay, you may have a point here, but how is sitting on a bench and listening to people talk different than watching the endless cutscenes we find in a Metal Gear Solid title?
Assassin’s Creed was and is an action game, yes. But it’s also an adventure game at the same time, one that takes place in two different time periods simultaneously. As you explore the world of Altaïr, you also explore the world of Desmond, and you do them in pretty similar fashions. Strange scientists in white coats aren’t going to be fully forthcoming with details, now are they? Why should we expect strange men in white tunics to be?
With Desmond’s scenes, there was the sense of the entire thing being an adventure game. I was trapped in this strange place. These people were surely lying to me. I wanted to explore; to discover and investigate. Surely that’s why we were able to play these sequences with Desmond so often, right?
I enjoyed my experience with Altaïr because I felt like he was connected with Desmond. I felt I was simultaneously exploring two different locations. I felt zero connection between Ezio and Desmond. I wanted to explore more with both characters. Assassin’s Creed II simply lacked a sense of unity.
I was only exploring Italy because I was amazed to see how much Florence matched up in game with the actual city (a city I had recently visited). But when I was done doing some virtual sightseeing and wanted to focus on the story, I would simply look at my map and head towards my marker, where I was promptly greeted with a cutscene à la Grand Theft Auto. Was it neat that I was BFFs with Leonardo Da Vinci? Sure. But I didn’t care about him—I cared about Desmond, about exploring the cities, and about assassinating my targets.
Is the first Assassin’s Creed perfect? No. But given the choice between how the two stories played out and between the two characters, I’d pick the original hands-down. While playing as Altaïr , I felt like an actual assassin. With Ezio, I just felt like I was following a line someone else had drawn for me.